“Craig Baldwin: Avant to Live.” Found Footage Magazine 9 (October 2023): 148-150.
Craig Baldwin: Avant to Live
Edited by Steve Polta and Brett Kashmere
(San Francisco: San Francisco Cinematheque and Incite: Journal of Experimental Media, 2023), 508 pages.
Cover by Jesse Drew.
Craig Baldwin: Avant to Live is the first text to critically engage with Craig Baldwin’s films as a cohesive body of work and to examine the cultural impact of his archival/anti-archival practices, his programming and community engagement through Other Cinema, and his editorial oversight at Other Zine.1 If you are a media fanatic and you are unfamiliar with Baldwin’s work, you definitely need this book. If you already know who Baldwin is, you have more than likely forgotten about the book you excitedly pre-ordered when the project was first announced and now own several copies; but, if capitalism has taught us anything, you can never own enough of anything. Avant to Live has contributions from over fifty writers, scholars, and artists and is a mix of interviews, academic articles, essays, testimonials, sketches, artworks, experimental writing, personal anecdotes, ephemera, and general “Colonel” Baldwin fandom. It contains full-color, glossy images, giving it the general feel of an art book; however, the contents remain true to both Other Zine and Incite, publications which encourage different writing styles, strategies, and formats.
Let’s begin with the title: Avant to Live. The book shares its title with Other Cinema’s New Experimental Works [N.E.W.] showcase at Artists’ Television Access [ATA] in San Francisco’s Mission District where Baldwin has lived for decades. Like the multi-layered and fragmented narratives of Baldwin’s films, there are several modes to interpret this title. We can view “Avant to Live” as a proclamation declaring a philosophy or a way of approaching life. Granted, due to the inherent ambiguity of the phrase, there are other ways to read it. “Avant” is the French word meaning “before” or “prior” and, in English, is usually followed by “garde.” “Avant-garde” literally translates to “advance guard” and, as such, is referring to the vanguard, which was originally a military term for the foremost part of an army. It later came to mean those who are pioneers, in particular in the arts.
One can imagine Colonel Baldwin with his army of Others introducing the world to a new way of living. Of course, he does this without guarding the gate. In an interview with Irene Borger, Baldwin warns, “there’s no such thing as a vanguard in our world. Now it’s called the margins.”2 Is living on the margins the same as advancing without guard? Or is “avant” simply intended as a form of slang, a form of shorthand for “avant-garde”?
The word “live” can be both an adjective and a verb.3 If “live” is used as a verb, it might mean to possess life. But if it is used in an advertisement for a screening, it might mean “see this screening in order to begin a new life.” Or does it mean that the avant-garde gives birth to a new life? As an adjective, it might mean to be alive—the avant-garde is needed to be alive, or this event is needed in order to continue being alive. Or maybe “live” might mean in the flesh or not pre-recorded, like live music—these screenings present work from the vanguard to live performance. Or perhaps the avant-garde is a way to transform an object into something dangerous or combustible, or a way of making something electric or making it reverberate, like “live” ammunition or a “live” wire or a “live” room.
“Avant to” might be something a vampire would say if we consider Bela Lugosi’s Romanian accent as the primary model for the genre—“Ah vant to live.” This seems plausible given Other Cinema’s practice of placing experimental films next to trash cinema. As Patrick Macias explains, “guys in rubber monster suits might seem at first like an odd fit for film programming that could draw from grand masters like Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage, along with New Experimental Works from local friends like James Hong or Sarah Jacobson,”4 but this is precisely the crazy patchwork Baldwin embraces. Editors Brett Kashmere and Steve Polta suggest that the phrase could “be read as Craig Baldwin’s manic mantra, his assertion of life, his commitment to pushing beyond barriers always into something…‘Other,’ something more, and to the importance of engagement with his artistic community and to contributing to the ongoing vitality of the thriving underground culture from which it emanates.”5
More than likely, “Avant to Live” is intended to mean all of these things at once. As Mike Hoolboom observes, “like his flicks, he [Baldwin] always said three things at the same time.”6 In Baldwin’s words, as quoted by Gerry Fialka, “to do something that’s never been done—Other!—something new or alternative, then it becomes dangerous! And you have to suffer because of it. That’s the masochism of the margins.”7
The articles in the book were carefully selected in order to provide an overview of Baldwin’s diverse and idiosyncratic artistic output. The first section of the book consists of several primary sources, including Baldwin’s own writing and interviews. It also contains rare and unpublished pieces including artists’ statements, Baldwin’s provocative acceptance speech for the Herb Albert Award, and a reprint of the legendary Orphan Morphin’ manifesto. This section familiarizes the reader with Baldwin’s ideas and ideology through his own words, as well as introducing the reader to diverse Baldwinisms including cinema povero, jiu jitsu, maximalism, orphan morphin’, availablism, artifactuality, dead media,pay-by-the-shot, aesthetic rapture, collage essay, electronic folk culture, beatnik-ism, and masochism of the margins.
The next section traces Baldwin’s entire filmography. While there is some overlap, most of the articles tend to explore a unique facet of Baldwin’s work, even if it is the same subject matter that is under investigation. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule; in a particular, there exists a well-developed dialogue between Catherine Russell, Jeffrey Skoller, Michael Zryd, and Federico Windhausen regarding Baldwin’s film Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991). Both Skoller and Zryd’s essays can be read as responses to Russell’s critique of Baldwin’s film. Russell presents an argument that Tribulation 99 “is an extremely ambivalent film, symptomatic of its own paranoid strategies that ultimately curtail the possibility of historical agency in the inaccessibility of a ‘real’ outside the onslaught of images.”8 In response, Zryd suggests that the “the ‘real’ exists in the onslaught of images.”9 Moreover, he presents ways in which the film offers a highly condensed meta-historical analysis and complex political critique while also providing tools for reading found footage films as “a metahistorical form” 10 of filmmaking which provides cultural commentary and reveals historical narrative patterns.
While not in direct dialogue with Russell, Skoller argues that Tribulation 99 uses its paranoid strategies, and the fact that any image can be stripped of its historical reality and re-contextualized, in order to demonstrate “how fear and paranoia can be mobilized for political ends through the complex and contradictory narrativizing of actual events in the world.”11 Finally, Windhausen’s essay anchors the section by suggesting another way to read the film, through exploring the historical context in which it was made and by engaging in intertextual readings including the film’s connections to other outsider subcultures—those consisting of the lunatic fringe, crackpots, kooks, and cranks.
Other dialectic bricks include: Scott MacKenzie’s guide to Baldwin’s films, written in the style of a classic 16mm educational catalogue but with Situationist zest; Kristin Cato’s overview of Baldwin’s expanded cinema practices; Sam Green’s insight into the production history of Stolen Movie (1976); Tom Day’s essay, which places the artistic reclamation of the cowboy in Wild Gunman (1978) within Pop Art traditions; Stephen Broomer’s analysis of the simple, but effective, strategies used by Baldwin to reveal the “psychic terrors of midcentury advertising”12 in Bulletin (2015); Kathleen Tyner’s close reading of the film RocketKitKongoKit (1986) to suggest some of the ways in which “the viewer becomes an active collaborator in the production of meaning,”13; Liz Kotz’ argument that the RocketKitKongoKit lives on the edge of documentary and calls into question ideas of truth, representation and othering; Jesse Lerner’s reading of ¡O No Coronado! (1992) as a decolonial film; Luisela Alvaray’s brief analysis of ¡O No Coronado!; Chris Chang’s discussion of the “fair use” doctrine in relation to Sonic Outlaws (1995); Joanna Byrne’s delightfully exploration of radical gender politics in Spectre of the Spectrum (1999); Bemjamin Schulz-Figueroa’s essay which argues that Spectre of the Spectrum subverts the educational intent of the original source material in order to introduce new forms of pedagogy; Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review of Mock Up on Mu (2008); and Keivan Khademi Shamami’s essay which explores the narrative construction of Mock Up on Mu through the use of asynchronous sound and voiceover narration.
The next section is dedicated to ATA and Other Cinema, and compiles testimonials from cinematic trenches including: Max Goldberg’s discussion of the aesthetics of Baldwin’s posters; Dolissa Median, Bill Brown, Molly Hankwitz, and Penny Nelson’s anecdotes about how and why they joined the Other army; David A. Cox’s suggestion, which offers a method to Baldwin’s archival madness; and Joshua L. Harper’s list of lessons learned from Baldwin. The section also includes a list of potential names that were considered for Other Cinema (pro tip: re-mix any of these when you start your own screening series), Other Cinema posters selected by Baldwin, documentary photos by Bill Daniel, 3D renderings of ATA by Byron Bryce, and a comic about projecting with Baldwin by Adam Dziesinski. Finally, the section features a letter from American film critic Leonard Maltin congratulating Baldwin for being awarded the Best Experimental Film of 1996 by the Los Angeles Film Critics association.
The writing in the next section includes personal responses ran the gamut from fan art to writing by close friends. Highlights include: Lynne Sachs’ personal letters provide a glimpse of what is life is really like for one whole heartedly embraces the “masochism of the margins.” Baldwin practices what he preaches and has carved out a space for his band of Others, but in these letters it is possible to see his great personal sacrifice in most unglamorous and unmythologized form; Hoolboom’s beautiful and critical micro-essay; Jesse Malmed’s visual representation of one of Baldwin’s chaotic lectures; collages by Soda_Jerk, Caroline Koebel, Bradley Eros and Kelly Gallagher; a note on the state of Baldwin’s archives by Rick Prelinger; Skoller’s recollections about the Urban Rats, a group of artists engaging with politically charged street art which him and Baldwin were both members; Daniel’s juicy tell-all about what it is actually like to work for Baldwin; Failka’s stream-of-scholarship writing; Vanessa Renwick explains Baldwin’s radical generosity while Alex Johnston discusses his radical curiosity; Anthony Buchanan’s insights into Baldwin as a scavenger within the artistic tradition of using cultural detritus and as a way of embodying an alternative lifestyle; Chip Lord’s selection of “Baldwinisms” complied from e-mail correspondences with the artist; a literal fan letter by Gallagher; and Valerie Soe’s confession that Baldwin’s friendship and support and curating have been invaluable and indispensable to the development of her artist practice, expressing a sentiment felt by many contemporary moving image makers.
This section provides insight into who Baldwin is beyond his public persona. Given that Baldwin practices the “masochism of the margins” and has carved out a space for his band of Others, in these section, in particular in his letters to Sachs, it is possible to see his great personal sacrifice in its most unglamorous and unmythologized form. These fan letters and essays also demonstrate the immense impact of Baldwin’s efforts.
Finally, the book contains a comprehensive bibliography of Baldwin-related writing, a listing of Other Zine articles, an index of Other Zine DVDs, and a complete filmography (all compiled by Kashmere), along with a biographical timeline by Adrienne Finelli based on interviews with Baldwin,14 and a listing of Baldwin’s expanded cinema performances collected by Cato (with extensive descriptions early in the book). The care put into meticulously compiling this material makes this book an invaluable reference for future scholars and a one-stop-reference-shop for anything Baldwin related.
I would recommend this book to anyone who identifies as a beatnik or media junkie, to anyone who references Marshall McLuhan or the Situationists in everyday conversations, no-budget filmmakers, low-budget filmmakers, filmmakers from Winnipeg or Milwaukee, anyone from San Francisco with even a remote interest in cinema, those who are committed to the cause and those who should be committed, anyone interested in found footage filmmaking, media theorists, media archaeologists, film fetishists, John Porter, anyone interested in the archives of artists whose work is unarchivable, folk archivists, culture jammers, pothead philosophers, philosophers engaged or enraged with media, and academics who have an interest in DIY culture, experimental media, cinephilia, pedagogy, cinema essays, collage films, or expanded and underground cinema. This book is also both ADHD and THC friendly. The book is good, take my word for it.
- Other Cinema is a long running screening series of experimental film and media that has presented thirty-six programs per year. The series has been at Artists Television Access in San Francisco’s Mission District since 1989. OtherZine is a digital zine component of Other Cinema. It consists of media-related writings and citiques, and often includes artworks and artist manifestos.
- Irene Borger, ‘Interview with Craig Baldwin,’ in Craig Baldwin: Avant to Live, 48.
- Fialka writes, “he [Baldwin] had direct mojo on the creation of the essay ‘Live Cinema as Live Cinema.’ Note that the first word ‘live’ is a verb, and the second usage of ‘live’ is an adjective.” Fialka and Will Nediger, ‘Live Cinema as Live Cinema,’ in Laughtears, 2018. See: Fialka, ‘Craig Baldwin’s Touch: Is it Love or Confusion? Or Glorious Not Knowing?,’ in Avant to Live, 357.
- Patrick Macias, ‘Godzilla vs. Other Cinema,’ in Avant to Live, 411.
- Kashmere and Polta, ‘Craig Baldwin: Avant Savant,’ in Avant to Live, 26.
- Mike Hoolboom, ‘Craig’s List,’ in Avant to Live, 363.
- Fialka, ‘Craig Baldwin’s Touch,’ in Avant to Live, 356.
- Russell, “Archival Apocalypse: Found Footage as Ethnography,’ in Avant to Live., 140.
- Zryd, ‘Found Footage Film as Discursive Metahistory: Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99,’ in Avant to Live, 157.
- Ibid., 155.
- Skoller, ‘Shards: Allegory as Historical Procedure,’ in Avant to Live, 151.
- Broomer, ‘Stationary Targets: Craig Baldwin’s Bulletin,’ in Avant to Live, 225.
- Tyner, ‘Pushing the Envelope with RocketKitKongoKit,’ in Avant to Live, 123.
- On a side note, Adrienne Finelli states that Wild Gunman was “later called the first machinima piece.” See: Finelli, ‘Craig Baldwin: Biographical Timeline,’ in Avant to Live, 434. In 2013, I curated Wild Gunman on 16mm as part of a machinima program titled “Awaiting the End of the Beginning” for Vector Festival. In the program notes, I suggested that Wild Gunman was one of the first machinima pieces since it used images from Nintendo’s Wild Gunman (1974), an electro-mechanical arcade game consisting of a light gun connected to a 16mm projection screen.